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Woman Athletic Head Bridges Gender Gap At U. of Maryland

WHEN the University of Maryland was looking for a new athletic director to guide its men's and women's athletic program last year, Debbie Yow was made a consultant to the search committee.

She already had done that job at St. Louis University, and her experience was valued in assessing candidates, including several women. What the committee soon discovered, though, was that Yow herself was its choice.

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``There were so many problems here,'' she says in a telephone interview, ``that the committee was willing to look beyond the gender issue and look just at credentials and track record.'' (Maryland is not alone in this regard. See story, right.)

The biggest challenge at Maryland, Yow says, can be summed up in four words: ``Money, money, money, money.'' She inherited a $6.8 million operating debt, a situation made more complicated because the athletic program is in the midst of a $49 million facilities-improvement project.

``I'm terribly optimistic,'' Yow says. ``I figure if we work hard enough and smart enough we will ... solve our problems.''

University president William Kirwan admires Yow's ``boundless energy'' and ``strong management skills'' and calls her a national leader on the issues facing college athletics: reform, cost containment, and gender equity.

As a basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, Oral Roberts University, and the University of Florida, she took unranked women's teams into the top 20. After serving as associate athletic director at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, for four years, she got the job at St. Louis in 1990 and helped oversee the renaissance of its sports program.

St. Louis's men's basketball team made it to the postseason national tournament in 1994 - the first time in 37 years. The school's student-athletes also had a 92 percent graduation rate, 10th best among major colleges.

The basic difference between the St. Louis and Maryland jobs, she says, is the addition of a big-time football program to her supervisory duties. And how does that play out? ``It feels as natural as breathing,'' she says. ``There's nothing ... odd or strange about working with the football staff.''

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What's awkward, she says, is confronting a panel of men while pursuing a job, as happened at St. Louis. Given the school's conservative image, some colleagues had predicted she would be treated as a token in the interview process. Her husband challenged her not to accept this verdict.

During Yow's first campus visit, she was ushered into a small room where members of the all-male booster club awaited her.

``My flight had been a little late,`` she recalls, ``and when I walked in no one smiled.'' There were no empty chairs. In an attempt at humor she asked, ``Where's the hot seat?''

``Anywhere you choose to sit,'' was the reply.

``That's how I started the interview process - it was frightening,'' she says. But what one booster thought would be a 20-minute formality turned into a lively 90-minute exchange that helped seal her selection.

Yow says that ingrained male-female perceptions can cloud the hiring process. ``If things can be put on a personal basis, so that it's not `a woman' but Debbie Yow and her experiences and background, it's different. Then people see you can do it.''

``There are more women capable of doing the job than folks realize,'' she adds. ``It's just that women don't have the chance to get into that final group where you can make your case.''

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